Boris Johnson’s whole life seems to have involved an endless series of overlapping lies. When the anger from one begins to fade, a new one appears to takes its place with a smirking Johnson carelessly surfing across successive waves of outrage, apparently with impunity.
However, ‘partygate’ has now broken all records for the length of time someone at the centre of a media frenzy can survive without being forced out of his or her job – the so-called Alastair Campbell rule – and the waves from new lies are starting to combine together, presenting a new danger to the prime minister.
More than eight weeks have passed since Pippa Crerar at The Daily Mirror first reported that the prime minister “broke lockdown rules” with two parties in Downing Street in the run up to Christmas 2020. At least 15 more parties have been added to the charge sheet since Boris Johnson claimed there were none at all. The frenzy, far from abating, has only increased, yet amazingly he remains in office.
Publication of Sue Gray’s report is now to be delayed, probably until Monday, as lawyers and civil service human resources staff wrangle over the details and decide what we are allowed to know, with fears growing among opponents that the ‘greased piglet’ is about to escape again.
Johnson to face police interview under caution
The prime minister’s more combative performance at prime minister’s questions (PMQs) yesterday was reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s last appearance at the despatch box. He seemed almost liberated. The spirits of Tory MPs may have been temporarily lifted but the fundamentals remain. Today he is still a known liar facing a police interview under caution.
An interview under caution is an interview with a suspect conducted under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. When the police suspect someone aged ten or over of committing an offence, they must caution them about their rights, so that the suspect is fully away that what they say could become evidence in a future criminal case. So before any questions are put to them, they are told:
Johnson will become the first serving prime minister of the United Kingdom to hear those words spoken to him. It will be quite a moment.
In plain English, it means that while he may choose not to give his side of the story – or to give only a partial account – if the matter proceeds to court and he provides a new or different account there, then the court may be less likely to believe what he says. Essentially, if the prime minister has an innocent explanation for breaking the law, or can provide evidence to prove his innocence, then the time to disclose this is when questioned by the police. Anything he does say during interview is recorded and could be used as evidence.
Another week, another lie, and still no Gray report
Immediately before PMQs, just as we seemed to be on the point of having all the incriminating details of partygate revealed, news of another potential lie emerged. The foreign affairs select committee released copies of an email suggesting that the PM had personally authorised the rescue of ex Royal Marine Pen Farthing and a collection of animals during the chaotic British withdrawal from Kabul airport last August.
Johnson has explicitly denied intervening to prioritise animals over Afghan interpreters and others desperate to escape the clutches of the Taliban. True or false, his denials tend nowadays to come with a slightly hollow ring and the latest evidence set off yet another media frenzy.
Gray’s long-awaited report will be crucial in deciding Johnson’s fate. One thing we may learn is who among his staff “repeatedly assured” Johnson that there were no parties. Which person or persons will be forced to admit that – assuming they exist? Surely a sacking offence.
We know at least 17 rule-breaking events took place. Were Downing Street staff really holding illicit parties over a period of 18 months or more and then gaslighting the gaslighter-in-chief? If Johnson didn’t get those assurances, then his statement to that effect was a cowardly attempt to shift blame, and another serious misleading of the House of Commons.
The prime minister’s long history of scandal and lies
The problem for Johnson and the Tory party is that he has form as long as your arm on these matters. The number of scandals that seem to have attached themselves to the current prime minister over the last 30 years is really quite remarkable. On first hearing, they seem highly suspicious and frequently downright shocking. But according to Johnson, all have perfectly innocent if often implausible and convoluted explanations.
They tend to follow a pattern. The gifted wordsmith firstly has problems explaining himself in plain English. The facts having to be extracted out of him over a long period, sometimes after an inquiry of one sort or another. Eventually a version of events emerges that appears to fit the known facts like a cheap second-hand suit.
Of course, such unfortunate events might happen to anyone once, perhaps even twice. But when it’s every single time, you must either conclude that he genuinely is the congenital liar everyone says he is, or extremely unlucky.
What you never hear about Johnson are any secret acts of kindness or generosity. There are no anecdotes that emerge from those close to him of the PM ever going beyond the rules or the call of duty as a positive example to others, or as a beacon of probity.
It’s always a suspicion that he is seeking to satisfy his own appetites for money, debauchery or self promotion. Strange that.
Only a change at the top will fix the Downing Street problem
One of the more enlightening commentaries about what comes next is from Daniel (Lord) Finkelstein, writing in The Times: Boris Johnson is the problem, not his underlings.
The government strategy, according to the former adviser to John Major and William Hague, will be to fire a few senior aides and propose a root and branch revamp of the Downing Street operation to ‘change the culture’. The most likely casualty being chief of staff Dan Rosenfield.
But Finkelstein suggests a small thought experiment. First, remember that 44-year old Rosenfield himself came in to replace the ‘career psychopath’ Dominic Cummings, whom Johnson had specially sought out to become his senior adviser. Rosenfield’s task was to restore order to the centre of government. But, as Finkelstein points out, that does not appear to have appreciably reduced the sense of chaos, or greatly improved the culture.
Next, look back at Rosenfield’s previous employers. He was private secretary to Alistair Darling and George Osborne before working for Johnson. Their private offices were never the subject of criticism for chaos or a culture of casual rule-breaking.
Therefore it must be concluded that the common denominator is Johnson rather than Rosenfield, or indeed anyone else in Downing Street. Whoever replaces Johnson’s principal private secretary will face exactly the same difficulty. The prime minister is essentially uncontrollable.
And, as Finklestein points out, Number 10 is a building that doesn’t have a culture until you put people in it. And those people all work for Johnson. If the culture is their responsibility, it is also his responsibility.
Johnson doesn’t listen
Another interesting comment comes from Shane Brennan, CEO of The Cold Chain Federation, who points out that one of Johnson’s later excuses for the Downing Street parties – that nobody told him they were against the rules – is remarkably similar to his excuse about the Northern Ireland protocol, where nobody told him there would be checks.
It also fits with Cummings’ revelation that Johnson was shocked to learn of the potential impact of the trade and cooperation agreement on British industry. The PM apparently displayed “appalled disbelief” when he realised Lord Frost was outlining the seriously negative effects of leaving the customs union with a deal, rather than no deal.
This begins to reveal another pattern. Not that his staff or experts don’t tell Johnson important details, but that he doesn’t listen. Or that he listens but doesn’t hear.
The next few weeks will show if the greased piglet can escape the consequences of his own character flaws again, or if the partygate affair was a scandal too far even for Conservative MPs.